Does homesteading really save money? The topic of this podcast can be controversial when it comes to homesteading and one in which not many people truthfully talk about. Amy, from A Farmish Kind of Life, and I talk about the ways in which one can evaluate whether homesteading actually saves you money.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #219 Does Homesteading Really Save Money? of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
Amy: This topic is definitely one of those ones that people just don't want to talk about. If you're going to have a good experience as a homesteader, you need to at least know what you're getting into.
Melissa: Totally agree. Talking about whether homesteading saves money is one of those things where it feels like there's no clear answer because there are so many things to consider. It's yes, or no but it's important to have the right outlook and be able to evaluate beyond just the upfront monetary costs or savings.
You May, or May Not, Save Money on Food
What are the areas that you feel with homesteading where you're saving money?
A: I think the saving money thing really has to do with food. I think it's all in how you look at it. It's almost like you're shifting expenses from one area to another and the money isn't really disappearing. It's not that everything is free. All of a sudden it's just that money that you would have spent on it in one way you're spending on it in a different way. For instance, if your spending less on eggs and meat, because you're raising it on your farm and you have it right there, but now you have a feed bill. You might not be saving quite as much as you originally thought. You're clearly probably saving money, but that's the thing people don't talk about…now you have a feed bill. So you can't forget that it's there. Sometimes people forget how much they're putting into the raising of that pound of bacon or that dozen eggs or those ears of corn because there's no price tag that reminds them that this wasn't exactly free.
I think when it comes to food I do think that your grocery bill cam go down if you're raising your own, even if you figure in the cost of feed. But if you're switching from a diet of generic tomato soup and ramen, you aren't necessarily going to feel like you're saving money on food. You might actually see an increase in cost. So, it really depends, when you decide to become a homesteader and step into this lifestyle, where you're coming from. You may one day realize that you could go to the store and buy that ramen and eat for a lot cheaper than it costs to raise the animals.
I believe that better food fuels your body in a better way and you are more likely to be a healthy, productive individual when you're eating really good food. But telling someone who's standing at the grocery store and only has $10 to spend and they're trying to stretch their money that homesteading going to save them money on food isn't really telling the whole story.
Here at our house we eat really amazing meats and we raise almost all of our own meat. We have all these great vegetables and canned goodness, but those are things I might not be able to buy if we were in a different situation. In other words, raising our own allows me to enjoy high end meat that I probably wouldn't be buying if I weren't living on a homestead and raising our own. I like to think of myself as living in this high end grocery store now because I have all the best stuff available to us. So it saves money, but it depends on how you look at it and what you're coming from.
Track Your Expenditures
M: We're the same as you, we raise all our own meats. We actually keep a log of how much we're putting into our animals, how much we're spending on feed versus how much we get back out (which we don't always do). So I think it's really important to know what those costs are not only from a financial standpoint but also to know how much per pound you're getting. If you aren't tracking or you don't know what those numbers are, you don't know if there's room to improve, where to bring costs down, even when raising it yourself.
Surprisingly a lot of people don't even do basic budgeting for their regular grocery bill, shopping at the store. If you're not already doing that with your homesteading stuff, definitely start and keep some records. If you already are keeping track, there are ways that you can adjust those feed bills and bring your costs down. Some of that may include improving your pasture. If you have a lot of acreage but some of it's in trees instead of grass, or maybe it's making a plan to increase your grass production by fertilizing and irrigating your field.
There are a lot of different things. Even with chicken foods you can grow an excess in the garden. I can grow extra in the garden cheaper than I can buy commercial feed, this is especially helpful in the summer and fall months when I can supplement. This is most relevant when the chickens are not totally free ranging, which is my case because we have too many predators where we live.
One aspect that needs to be considered are the health benefits of the foods you raise and grow on your homestead versus the cheap food price wise and nutritional wise that can be bought at the store, like top ramen. I used to have health issues that were directly related to the foods that I was eating. By changing my diet, even though it wasn't an overnight process, I was able to heal from those issues. There's an energy level that you get and health benefits that can't necessarily be measure in a day but over time can be realized. I think we have to evaluate that.
A: I think that's absolutely true and do agree that when you're eating the better food, there's so much that comes out of that. You feel so much healthier, you're so much more productive. That energy that you talked about, absolutely. It's worth pointing out to people. When I interviewed people for my book I found that they had this belief that they were going to go from eating food that was not necessarily the best for them and move to the homestead and everything was going to be “Ta da!” and they have all this food and it's wonderful. There's costs that come along with that. So while I think that those are valid costs and it's absolutely worth it, that conversation needs to be had so that people understand that it's going to cost a little money to get into homesteading and understand what's coming.
M: It's true, there are costs associated with it for sure.
Comparisons Are Necessary to Decide Best Course of Action to Be the Most Frugal
We evaluate whether we can buy something at the same quality level as we would raise it. For example, our meat birds, in order to do an equal comparison, it has to be pasture raised and organic…the same quality as we'd be raising them ourselves. So we do look at that comparison of raising it ourselves and those costs versus buying it locally. Some years it's been really close.
A: We've done that sometimes with our vegetables. Some times we just had a really hard year with growing stuff. Specifically at our property for whatever reason. It's just easier for me at some point, when ours are failing, to go down the road to the local farm stand and support my neighbors and buy stuff there.
M: I completely agree. I love having that option to go out and support people in your local community. Even if you feel like you don't have that homesteading community around you, find what you can, a local butcher for example. That butcher is getting their meat locally and you can find some really good deals on meat, but you can also talk to them. Our local butcher, which is where we have our cattle processed, and sometimes our pigs, there have been times that I've asked them, when I needed more lard than what I had from our pigs, if they have any that someone else might not want. I'm very specific in that I only want it from organic, pasture raised farms. They know their farmers. That's how I got extra lard. So sometimes it's just using the business to support other farmers.
What Should People Consider to Save Money?
Amy, when you were interviewing people for your book, It's Not About Money…except when it is, what are some things that you found people actually saved money on? Directly but also areas that have upfront costs that you don't realize the return on investment right away.
Up Front Costs
A: That's the thing, when you're homesteading there's going to be that time period where you're going to be spending money and that time period will repeat itself as you get into projects and start dreaming. When you're dreaming and thinking up great ideas to try, there are a lot of projects that will cost money. That's one thing that I learned when we moved here. I was the person who could see the dream and what it was going to be when it was done and all the great things we could do. My husband was the one keeping it real and focusing on the costs. We balance each other a bit.
Getting ready for animals costs money, bringing animals to your homestead costs money. But in the long run by keeping track of it all, you'll see where you're saving money and where you're not. Like this year you did and last year you didn't. What was the difference? Was it the weather? Did you spend more on animal that you brought to the farm? Did you have issues? Where there vet bills that came up? What was the extra cost? Keeping track of that is going to put you in a good place.
Environment and Infrastructure
But, it's that getting ready for the animals. When we moved here to the farm in 2011, it had been a working farm, it was a lovely house with a big red bard and outbuildings. We moved here having the infrastructure to get going and be able to jump into chickens, pigs, horses, goats, and all the things we wanted to do for awhile. We had a lot of repair we had to do and a lot of modifications. Although we are DIY people and try to do things as cheaply as we can and reuse stuff there were still costs involved. So even if you're moving to a place that's already kind of set up, there may be things you need to change, repairs to make, and modifications to do. But if you're moving a place where you're starting from scratch, then you're going to be putting money into it depending on how big your dream is and what your plans are and what you want to do.
There's fixing the buildings, putting up buildings, dealing with fencing – depending on the type of animals, putting up covered runs depending on what kind of predators you have. If you have chickens now you need to keep them safe, what are you going to do? That costs money. Then after you get the animals, obviously you have the feed bill and vet bill. It's a really big vet bill if you have to call that vet to your house. And an electric bill if you have electric in your barns. I've always said that having a barn is kind of like having a second house full of toddlers who are always hungry. So obviously that costs money.
Then when thinking about putting in garden beds, are you going to have to haul in dirt? Are you going to have to haul in soil or are you going to amend that soil? And how are you going to do that? Is it going to cost money? Seeds are going to cost money. If you've never bought seeds before it can be really shocking how fast that all adds up. You have this vision of this great, wonderful, beautiful garden you're going to have. Then you sit down and do the math and you realize exactly how much the seeds and plants are going to cost. In the end though, that's going to save you money. Maybe not every year, and that's another important thing to point out: every year on the farm is different. So you may have a streak of really great years and then you have one year where it's bad and actually costs you more money.
The other thing is that more animals on your farm costs more money. When people first get into animals, oftentimes they get chickens and then more chickens and more chickens and then get goats. Then get more goats and more goats. On one hand that's wonderful because more chickens means more eggs and more meat, or whatever you're raising the animal for. But it also costs more money to keep them. Sometimes people don't think always the way through when they see the cute little baby chicks and think, “What's 50 more chicks?” But those chicks grow up and they eat a lot of food. It's kind of a process. It costs money in the beginning and hopefully it's going to save you money at the end. And generally it does.
M: I agree. Now, the type of animal and how it's raised definitely plays into your input costs. We raise grass fed beef, pork, and chickens for eggs and meat. The cattle require the least amount of infrastructure for us. We don't have to do electric fence since we have barbwire fencing and we don't have a barn. They don't need a barn. We have evergreen trees and natural wind breaks that they can go under the thick evergreen trees when it's raining really hard and during snow storms. We have some different areas that they can go and get shelter from extreme wind and elements. I have found that once the fencing is out, which is your initial cost, I'll occasionally have to replace some sections and grab a couple more fence posts, but for the most part, once it's up it's just as easy for us to raise two to three cows, which is better because they're a herd animal, as it is to raise one.
We find it easier to raise cattle than we do the chickens. We get a lot bigger return on investment (ROI) on a cow than we do with the chickens and eggs. Part of that is the cost, but the other is that they just require a lot more maintenance and work as well as food year round. Even though I move then around the pasture for food when the grass is growing I still have to supplement them more than I do for the cattle.
Sometimes you have to look at that animal and look at the overall ROI. Yes, the cow has a bigger upfront cost than a chicken but overall, I get a lot more back on that cow by selling or in the amount of meat that we would get from that animal.
Be Willing to be Flexible and Change Your Plans
A: I agree with that. It's funny because when you move to the homestead and have a plan of what you're going to have, you may find that's not really what's going to work. One of the first animals we had when we moved here was goats because that was what I wanted. Within three years we figured out that just was not cost effective for us because we can't really make our own hay. We only have five acres so where we'd be able to grow the hay isn't enough to support a lot of animals that would eat it. So we had to change our plans and now do pigs. I love pigs because it's more cost effective for us. It really depends on where your homestead is and what's available to you.
M: Yeah, each homestead is going to be different. I think it's so important for people to know that because a lot has to do with your climate. We purchase hay as well because we don't have enough acreage for pasture and hay. Oftentimes, like you said, we get this idea in our mind of what the perfect homestead is going to be and what it all encompasses and we just hold onto that so tightly, even when it's not in our best interest. So I think being very honest with yourself and the numbers, looking at them and knowing that it's okay if you have to make a change. Like you said, giving it a couple years with the goats and then give yourself permission to say that it's not working and make that change to something else.
A: Absolutely. That's a really good thing to point out because, especially if you're active in any homestead forums like Facebook groups, if you say, “Goats didn't work for me or pigs didn't work for me” there are those people just waiting to tell you how much they love their goats and how much they love their pigs. Which is okay and wonderful, everybody has different stuff. It's absolutely okay to try an animal and decide to switch to something else.
M: Even in gardening there are people that say you have to do it this way or this is the right thing to do. There are best practices with anything with animal husbandry and with gardens but what you do has to be what works for you. What works for you might not be what works for me, and vice versa. I think it's always great for us to glean ideas and helpful tips from one another, but sometimes it just comes down to actually doing and being okay to say something isn't working and trying something else to see if it works better in your situation. What works for your right now in five years might not.
A: Exactly. And it has to do with what's going on with your family. If you have little kids, or big kids. There's so much stuff that's changing on your homestead that doesn't necessarily have to do with homesteading or the animals or your garden or anything like that. The great thing about homesteading is that it's fluid. You can change every year is different and be willing to experiment.
Planning Doesn't Always Prevent Surprises
M: When you guys moved to your farm, what was your biggest surprise expense that you weren't expecting?
A: The first year that we moved here, we actually moved here in the winter of 2011. And we were getting ready for that first spring and we were so excited because we're finally at our farm, getting all the chicks and all the babies and all the things. So we had several flocks f chicks under heat lamps in that very cold spring. We had all this stuff going on. We had a heated room that we had to have in the our barn to keep the water lines from freezing. So we were running all these things and that first electric bill we got after we had started running them, I was like, “Oh my goodness, why is our electric bill so much? There has to be something wrong.” I called the electric company and explained that there had to be something wrong because our electric bill shot up so much. The gal who answered the phone asked if I lived on the farm? And proceeded to ask if we were running any heat lamps, any electric milk house heaters, or tank heaters or any heat tape or anything like that. And you know, I'm just ticking off the things that she's saying because she's hitting everything. She explained that if you're running something that creates heat, it's going to cost more money. I had never put two and two together. Like every heat lamp that you are running is making your electric bill go up…that thank heater you have, that stock tank heater so that your horses have open water…that's all costing money.
Projects Cost Money
So that was a surprise to me. Now we know when we start running these things in whatever season we know our electric bill is going to go up. The other thing is that projects cost money. This seems so obvious, but when you get so fired up about the dream of homesteading and you've been dreaming it a long time, like it took us four years to get our farm, you just want to get started implementing those projects…which cost money. Very often we have to slow down on projects, it's not because you don't have time. It's not because you can't do the work. It's because you don't have the money to put into whatever it is that you're wanting to do.
We built a little seed starting operation and I was so excited to be able to start my own seeds. I wasn't thinking about the bill from Amazon for all the stuff we had to order to build it. We built a fodder system and I thought it was going to be so great, we're going to have all these green wonderful stuff for our animals when the ground is covered with snow. And again, I'm not thinking what it's going to cost to get us there. And the bummer thing is that sometimes you spend this money on these projects because they're eventually going to make things easier and more simple and save you money and sometimes they don't work out. Like our seed starting expedition. It failed the first year and we still ended up buying 50 tomato plants to put in the garden. So it actually cost us more that year. But those things happen and they are okay to talk about.
We've had lots of great projects that turned out but we've also had some not so cheap projects that did not save us as much money in the end as we had hoped they would. And some of them cost more than they ever would have saved us. If you go into homesteading understanding that those things happen, you're going to have a totally different outlook on the future of your homesteading. Our next project here is actually to build a smokehouse.
We raise most of our meat. The only thing that we don't raise is beef and don't generally eat it, but we have a friend who raised beef for us this year and we did a little swap with pork and chicken. So we do a lot of smoking of our meat. Our little smoker that we have has served us well but we need to have something bigger now. We're very excited about building a smokehouse. In my mind I can see the finished project and my husband is asking the hard question about what we're going to spend on the materials. I always skip that step. We always do it as cheaply as we can and we know there's a bunch of materials here on the farm that we will be able to reuse but obviously it isn't going to be free. I guess that's what I learned. That was the surprise when I moved to the farm…it's just going to be more money, especially in the beginning as you start the projects and get things going. I think that's something that people don't talk enough about.
M: I think so too. What are some of the projects that have been successful? You can pick just one of your favorites or one of the top ones that comes to mind but did save you money.
A: When we moved here we had free range chickens and for a few years it was fine. Then all of a sudden the predators came out of the woodwork and we had all these predators in the yard. So we had to figure out what we were going to do about it, finding different was to fence things in and cover things to make it safe. Another thing, my husband wanted was to raise pheasants and I wasn't quite sure about that. But we needed to figure out how to make it happen but finding dog kennel panels to put up to create a place for them to be. Then figuring out how we're going to cover it. It was great. We had pheasants here for three years which also means we had pheasant for our freezer. So that was something that saved us money. We would not have had that many pheasants in our freezer if we hadn't raised them ourselves. Brainstorming and trying to figure out how to do this less expensively was really how the project came to work because if it would have been too much money we would have abandoned it.
We're really DIY people, building our own hay feeders and other stuff around here. My husband recently made a drum type chicken plucker. He's very mechanical and watches a lot of YouTube videos, reads a lot of blog posts, looks at instructions, and just comes up with how to make it work in his head. If you have someone who is handy and can figure out how to make things that will save you a ton of money for sure. There have been lots of projects that have been very beneficial that have turned out and definitely saved us money.
Is Cheap the Best Option in All Cases?
M: This brings me to the next point, Is less expensive always the best option?
A: Less expensive is really, really great when it works out, but it's not always an option to begin with. It's cliche but time is money and you don't always have the time so sometimes you have to spend the money. If you're dealing with trying to fix something on your farm and you only have so much time, you may end up having to buy that part to make things work just for the sake of time, rather than waiting three days to find it cheaper. Do it yourself is often less expensive, but it's not always an option. Like when we were building this stuff for the pheasants, we had the dog panels. If we would have had to search for them or something cheaper and then go drive and pick it up…sometimes you don't have that time.
So many choices and decisions to be made in homesteading, some of them aren't easy and some of them are so much more expensive than we thought they would be. But the great thing you said, it's very often balanced out with other projects that come out very cheaply.
M: I'm with you, there are some thing we have been able to do extremely cheaply, but when it comes to quality, especially with mechanical things, cheap may not be the most cost effective option. For example, when my husband and I were in our early years of marriage when we were just starting out and didn't have a lot of money and needed everything. So I was always of the mindset that we would buy the cheapest we could find. And sometimes you have to do that. If you only have $10 and there's a $10 and a $20 option, then you have to buy the $10 one. But there were definitely instances where I could have spent another $50 and gotten the better quality item. But then the cheap item breaks after one season and it's not fixable, or the parts to fix it are worth more than we we paid for it. So I think there is a balance and I have definitely learned that it's a lot better when you can, to invest in that higher quality, especially on equipment, than versus buying the absolute cheapest.
A: Yeah, absolutely agree with that. And the funny thing, talking about tools or equipment, they don't make things like they used to. Things aren't going to last as long as they would have, especially if you don't buy the more expensive ones. So when you do have the money definitely buy the more expensive thing because it's going to last you longer 99 times out of a hundred. I like to buy stuff from old farm auctions. Like, some of my favorite shovels, they don't make shovels like that anymore. If you go to an old farm auction that is the best thing because those tools have been through everything and they are going to continue to go through everything.
M: We recently went to a farm equipment auction and it was so much fun. I got the most amazing things there. We went because we had been saving up, because we couldn't afford a new tractor for over a decade and had been using a four wheeler. But our herd expanded and needed to be able to do the big round haylage bales instead of the square bales. It's much more economical for us to buy the round bales that look like marshmallows that are wrapped for feed. You don't need a barn. So we can store more feed for more of our animals without having a barn. We're just not at that point yet where we can build a barn. But we needed a tractor in order to move them. You can push them with a four wheeler if you get them on their side, but it takes a very long time to move throughout the pasture.
So we saved up and got a used tractor, which we knew going into it was a gamble. It did pay off for us. We knew that with it being used it would need to be repaired and things fixed on it. But it was a way that we could afford it now. If you can have someone who is mechanical and knows what to look for when buying a used piece of equipment, that's ideal because they'll be able to tell you what needs to be replaced and any issues you may encounter. Even if you have to pay a mechanic to do an inspection, it would be worth it in that type of instance.
A: Yeah, cause you don't want to get into something that you're going to get in over your head with repairs. So it's definitely good to go into it knowing what you're getting into.
M: Where can people find out more about your thoughts on frugal living?
A: I would love it if folks would check out my book, It's Not About Money…except when it is. It doesn't completely focus on homesteading so if you're not a homesteader, or not yet, many things in the book are going to apply to you. I relate a lot of things to homesteading because that's the life that I live, but definitely anybody can read it. It gives some practical tips about saving money, but I didn't want to do just a rehashing of a million tips you probably find on the internet. It really focuses more on having a really honest and deep conversation about your relationship with money that I don't think is discussed in a lot of other places. It'll get you thinking about some really good stuff, and I would say it's equal parts honesty and humor.
M: Good, we all need humor in our life.
About Amy: Amy Dingmann is the Farmgirl in Charge at her 5 acre Central MN homestead where she lives with her husband and two teen sons. Besides being busy in the barn, the garden, and the kitchen, she is an author, blogger, podcaster, and speaker about all things homesteading. She’s given us an authentic and sometimes hilarious peek at life on a homestead through her website, A Farmish Kind of Life, since 2009. Amy’s goal is to inspire people to take on life as a homesteader and help them figure out how to do it in a way that works for them.
Where to find Amy:
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